How Counselors are Learning to Address Racial Trauma

Sarah Daren has been a consultant for startups in the wellness industry, wearable technology and health education. She is currently a consultant for a number of higher education universities, working with professors to help develop and distribute resources that highlight the latest research within the health and medical industries. Her main focus with this initiative is making America a healthier and safer place for future generations to come.

Ways that Racism is Experienced

Racism is experienced in different ways, and each person can exhibit different symptoms. This is why it’s important for counselors to understand the various experiences that result in racial trauma and psychological toll of stress to recognize the resulting symptoms.

Here are some of the ways racism can be experienced:

  • Racism-related life events: These are often short or infrequent life events. They can have short-term and long-term effects on the recipient's well-being.
  • Chronic contextual stress: This type of stress arises from institutional and sociopolitical inequalities. These inequalities serve as a disadvantage to the affected minorities.
  • Vicarious life experiences: This type of experience doesn't happen directly to the person impacted. An example would be someone hearing about a racially driven shooting on the news directed at someone of the same background. Vicarious life experiences can produce a broad range of stressful emotional responses.
  • Trans-generational transmission: This type of racism is defined as the way in which the historical context of one’s racial group elucidates present-day dynamics of racism-related stress.
  • Daily racial micro-aggressions: This category of experienced racism manifests as subtle comments on a regular basis that is considerably debilitating over time.
  • Collective experiences: Political, cultural, and social expressions of racism accumulate to form collective experiences of racism.

Symptoms of Race-Based Stress and Trauma

The symptoms of race-based stress and trauma vary from person to person. However, there are some common symptoms that counselors and therapists should look for when identifying racial trauma. These symptoms are often similar to those with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Common symptoms of race-based stress and trauma include:

  • Vigilance
  • Depression
  • Anger
  • Intrusion
  • Avoidance symptoms
  • Loss of appetite
  • Emotional numbing
  • Apathy

Who is most likely to experience racial trauma?

Certain groups of people or individuals are more likely to experience racial trauma or stress. In some cases, the impact of racial trauma is magnified for individuals that are impoverished, disabled or identify as part of the LGBTQ community.

Acculturation stress is another factor to consider. This type of stress is known to have a psychological impact when immigrants are adapting to new cultures. Acculturation stress among young immigrants and the children of immigrants has led to an increase in depressive symptoms.

Another factor that contributes to race-based stress or trauma is the influence of the Strong Black Woman or Superwoman phenomenon. This type of pressure is associated with the obligation of meeting day-to-day demands coupled with multiple caregiver roles.

The Psychological Toll

Racism can cause a severe psychological toll on individuals. If left untreated, these symptoms can exacerbate further the divide among minority groups in the country.

Today, racial trauma is not formally recognized in the diagnostic and statistical manual. Even so, counselors should be prepared to discuss the effect of an individual’s race or ethnicity on their daily life experiences. Counselors must also be aware that minor events could trigger traumatic reactions in their patients following multiple racist events in the past.

Counselors Treating Racial Trauma

Some researchers suggest that ethnic minority researchers will be the leaders in conducting more research on racial trauma.

It’s up to counselors and therapists to be aware of racial experiences and learn to recognize the symptoms of racial stress and trauma. These professionals serve a pivotal role in helping individuals address and process fears that stem from racism. Even though racial trauma is not formally recognized in the counseling community, it's real to the individuals experiencing it and causes detrimental harm. It's essential that counselors acknowledge its impact and work towards treating it.

Learn more on how to approach counseling from a multicultural perspective with our 10 Multicultural Factors to Consider in Counseling.

Last updated: April 2020